The Three-Pointer: Risky Business

1. Garnett on the pine The 4th quarter chants of "K-G! K-G!" from confused and inpatient fans were louder than the boos and screams directed at Wolves coach Dwane Casey tonight. But don't expect that to last. Once the Target Center faithful learn that Casey is determined to give his superstar as well as Ricky Davis ample time on the bench for the rest of the season in order to hasten the development of his young players, they are either going to get ugly or apathetic. And right now it is hard to say which would be worse for this franchise.

First, the background. Garnett played the entire first and third quarters in tonight's tilt against Utah, during which time the Wolves outscored the Jazz, 53-51. KG sat the entire second and fourth periods, when Utah registered a 52-42 advantage over Minnesota en route to a 103-95 victory.

I could be very wrong--and I hope I am--but I think Casey is taking a huge risk with this maneuver. There are three other people--KG, owner Glen Taylor and personnel VP Kevin McHale, in that order--who have to be on board with this in order for it not to blow up in the coach's face. (And even then it could.) Garnett seemed subdued and a little embarrassed during his uncharacteristically early postgame interview in the locker room. To most of the questions, he replied, "You'll have to ask the coach."

In his own postgame remarks, Casey said that KG doesn't like the situation but understood what was going to happen before tonight's game and understands the need to develop the likes of Rashad McCants and Marcus Banks and Justin Reed. Asked if Taylor and McHale were likewise aware of the move, and presumably endorsing it, Casey nodded in the affirmative and said, "Yes, I'm developing players, which is what they want. This is the charge I've been given; to improve McCants and to improve Marcus Banks." Well, that's not exactly a response that guarantees either Taylor or McHale were in the loop on this idea. Taylor was courtside and doubtlessly heard the KG! chants and the boos and the anger. McHale was nowhere to be seen. "At this time next year, our fans should be thanking us," Casey said, explaining that if you really want these guys to develop, getting them extensive time in game situations is the only way to do it.

I asked Casey two questions. One was, given how much pride KG takes in being regarded as an all-out gamer who always gives his all to help his team win, is he going to be comfortable with this arrangement for the rest of the season? Casey essentially said yes, he won't like it, but he understands why it needs to be done. I'm not so sure. I think if the fans erupt with enough passion, and rightfully bitch that they paid $40, $150, $200, whatever, to see a game and the Wolves only play their superstar for part of it, Taylor and KG will start to backtrack, and Casey will be left with egg on his face.

I liked Casey's answer to my second question much better. The query was, How is playing without KG preparing these young players to be Timberwolves? After all, isn't the most important thing they can learn is how to play *with* Garnett? Casey replied that it is true, that it is almost like two separate scenarios, and he specifically mentioned how Garnett is often triple teamed and how that affects room to manuver and spacing. But he said he wanted to see how his young guys fared when Garnett wasn't sucking up the opposing defenses, and also when these guys couldn't rely on Garnett to bail them out. He specifically cited McCants's ability to drive to the hoop in heavy traffic as something he was interested in witnessing with Garnett out in tonight's fourth period. He added that exhibition games and garbage time don't provide the same stiff level of competition.

My take is, Coach Casey, you better hope that Taylor and Garnett have your back (I'm not sure McHale does, but he matters least of the three), because a united front is required to weather the fans' reaction. Personally, I do think it is a good thing to see how Banks and McCants in particular fare without their superstar around, although I wouldn't do it as often as Casey seems prepared to experiment. Tonight the coach said he might not follow the same pattern--one quarter on, one quarter off--but that 24 minutes was "probably the limit" he would play Garnett from here on out.

Why is this a risk? Because, sure, I can agree with Casey that this is a great way to accelerate the learning curve; but neither one of us is shelling out major money for those tickets. Tonight the Wolves were outrebounded 18-6 in the 4th quarter, including 9-4 on the Wolves defensive glass (that's right--the Jazz grabbed 9 offensive boards in the 4th quarter alone) with Garnett and Mark Blount out and Eddie Griffin getting all 12 minutes. What happens a week from Sunday versus San Antonio? Will it be a slaughter or just really extended garbage time as the Spurs clear their bench as well? What happens if and when the fans revolt? Will a chastened Garnett demand to play? Will Taylor, who seems to be no great fan of Casey's anyway, hang him out to dry on this move? I did ask Casey a third question, which was what are the risks for him in all this. And he said, in so many words, there are always going to be risks but this is what he feels he needs to do to improve the team for next year.

2.Eddie Griffin's step backward By most any yardstick one wants to use, Eddie Griffin has experienced a disappointing season, and I think there is plenty of blame to go around. Casey certainly gets some because he didn't think Eddie was better than Michael Olowokandi and he didn't seem to value what Eddie gave this team defensively after preaching at the onset of the season that he wanted to stress defense.

But what I haven't heard from anybody--and as a chronic defender of Griffin, I've been waiting--is harsh criticism directed at EG himself. It's been too easy to say, "Oh, it's his eyes that are the problem; well let's get his eyes fixed and see what happens next year." Now some of you properly wonder why Griffin didn't take it upon himself to address the eye problem during the off-season. But I'm also wondering exactly how important razor-sharp eyesight is anyway. Okay, maybe for shooting, but points were always a bonus with Griffin anyway. What I'm looking for is his presence in the paint, in terms of blocks, man-defense and defensive rotations.

Are Griffin's eyes appreciably worse now then when he had his breakout game after cracking the starting lineup earlier this season? Because for whatever reason, he got manhandled in the paint but most everyone he matched up with--Jarron Collins, Carlos Boozer, and Mehmet Okur. It seems to me that lapses in concentration have hurt Griffin a lot more than fuzzy vision this year. He remains a marvelous help defender and a disruptive shot blocker par excellence, with exquisite timing--he blocked three more shots tonight. But it seems as if that skill would also require keen vision, for depth perception if nothing else. Bottom line, this has been a fitful season for Eddie Griffin and everyone in the organization, including EG, needs to feel hang-doggish about it. Because a quality defender in the paint is one of the huge needs on this team. And if Griffin is going to get tossed in the development pool to sink or swim alongside Banks, McCants, and Reed for the rest of the year, that's a good thing. And it should have happened sooner, and with the same care and dedication accorded him in practice that Banks has been getting.

3. A couple of gamers In addition to McCants's strong moves to the hoop (the rook had 6 FTs in the 4th period), the other player Casey could cite to justify his crash development course was Justin Reed, who erupted for 18 points in 17:48 of playing time tonight, despite being saddled with five fouls. If nothing else, it was a marvelous audition for Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, who loves players who have a nonstop motor and flirt with dirty--call it gritty--play at both ends of the court. If the Wolves let Reed slip between their fingers because they need every penny spent on an upgrade at point guard or center, it wouldn't surprise me to see Sloan snap up Reed.

The other gamer who deserves high praise is Trenton Hassell. It is an honorable axiom of most coaches that a players doesn't lose his position due to injury unless the circumstances are extraordinary. Hassell lost his spot in the starting lineup to hasten McCants's development, while the frequently selfish Ricky Davis (of whom it can be said that he *doesn't* do all the little things) logged his usual 40+ minutes until tonight. But there Hassell was versus the Jazz, out there with the scrubs, providing ballast and leadership, hitting four of six shots, grabbing four boards, two assists, a steal and a whopping three blocks while spending copious time guarding center/forward Okur in the second quarter and the bruising Matt Harpring (who tortured McCants in the low block the way a cat tortures a wounded fly) much of the rest of the time. He's a true professional.

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